How to Spot Greenwash in Sustainability Reporting: A Beginner’s Guide

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Originally uploaded Jul 20, 2021

What do we mean when we say the word sustainability?

This may seem like a trivial way to begin this guide but this is an absolutely vital start if we’re going to address the first hurdle one must climb when talking about sustainability.

When you think about what sustainability is, like, the picture or definition that pops into your head; I can almost guarantee that what you thought is different from what I and practically everyone else (yes, I’m talking to all four of Future Shift’s loyal blog readers) thinks sustainability is.

Unlike, say, a pencil, which in this part of the world will almost certainly conjure up this image (left), sustainability in our collective mind looks more like this (right). On the right is what is called a floating signifier in linguistics. A signifier because it points to a specific image or idea and floating because the image or idea is unspecific amongst a population. The word sustainability floats around without a common definition which makes it almost impossible to talk about.

And I will start with my hypothesis here: that because the definition of sustainability is not agreed upon (and in some cases not fully understood by those advising sustainability), greenwashing is endemic in the world of business and sustainability consulting. This is because of a structural problem and not any malintent on the end of sustainability consultants, but all the same something that should be talked about and addressed through education and sound communication.

This is where my definition of sustainability comes into play. Just like an anthropologist must be aware of their positionality (their social or political stance relative to what they’re studying), you must be aware of my stance: which is chiefly biological. That is, that sustainability is a status of a business or person that would make this person or business exist within nutrient, water and carbon cycles indefinitely all the while not relying on existing structures of inequality to do so.

Now that the definition and hypothesis is out of the way we can get to our greenwash guide. I’ll run through three things to look out for to spot greenwashing in sustainability reporting.

1. Lack of independent reporting body or framework

This one’s especially important for large or impact-driven companies (companies that have impact at the heart of their business model or value proposition) that have sizeable budgets set aside for sustainability reporting.

If a company is working within a given framework (like the Science Based Targets Initiative for carbon reporting for example) or have brought in an independent reporting body to do the heavy lifting with respect to the numbers (like a university or research institute), they are already taking a big first step towards cutting out bias and greenwash from their sustainability report. Riverford Organic Farmers partnered with the University of Exeter and independent researchers Savanta to sort out their carbon foot-printing and plastic packaging reporting respectively and a produced a stellar, evidence-driven sustainability report as a result.

On the flip side, if a company is doing everything in-house, using their own reporting methodology, you’ll have to do some digging before their reporting approach can be considered greenwash free.

2. Lack of accountability

Accountability is important in reporting and there are tricky ways that companies get around accountability for things like sustainability commitments. One law to live by is that numbers always speak louder than words.

If words are chosen instead of numbers to define a commitment or action taken towards sustainability, then you need to look out for weasel words. These are words like ‘supporting’ ‘encouraging’ and ‘promoting’ which sound all well and nice, but when it comes to sustainability reports, an action to ‘encourage staff to be more environmentally friendly’ carries with it no accountability. This is because the extent of encouragement is up to the company here. It could be just putting an A4 print out over the printer telling staff to print two sided; a valuable nudge, but as a serious sustainability commitment, this is nothing more than wordplay to ensure a company is not held accountable for doing not much at all.

A better way to approach this ‘encouraging of staff’ can be seen from Riverford Organic Farmers who give a free lunch to anyone who cycles to work. There is no ambiguity here and, though not a number, is something that Riverford can be held accountable for if they fail to deliver.

3. Commitments without clear roadmaps

This one’s high up on my pet peeves list and perhaps for me the most telling sign of greenwash. Let’s take Net Zero commitments for example, something that every company seems to be churning out these days.

Something I see all too often are half-commitments that don’t have a clear cut way of how to get there. An example I came across recently is Bristol’s Net Zero 2030 commitment which is mapped in this 120-page report. Their commitment relies on so many forces that are out of their control making it very difficult to actually call this a true commitment; more greenwishing than malicious greenwash, but still reduces the integrity of commitments all the same. Some of the assumptions are that the UK energy mix will be pretty much zero carbon by 2030, all 20-25,000 new homes in Bristol will be built with no carbon emissions, and that citizens will replace gas boilers (which have a life expectancy of 15 years) with air source heat pumps within the next 8.5 years.

This last one, where Bristol residents have to replace fossil fuel boilers with an electricity-powered alternative is particularly tricky as it passes on a pivotal part of Bristol’s commitment to the consumer. If we don’t see significant policy-led incentives for consumers (especially those who don’t have the disposable income to replace a working boiler) to make the shift, this commitment can be considered greenwash on a city level.

Good roadmaps, based on existing technologies are vital for sustainability plans that are free of greenwash. There are countries and companies that are net zero right now, so waiting for the system to change to suit your commitment leaves commitments and sustainability plans empty and false.

Look out for the three mentioned things in sustainability reporting to spot the green from the greenwash. At Future Shift, we are committed to evidence and science-based sustainable transition and reporting. We dig into the norms to create valuable resources that allow our clients to steer clear of greenwashing and implement true sustainability.